Sex, Alcohol and a Life without Meaning: Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita”

Director:  Federico Fellini
Writers: Federico Fellini (story), Ennio Flaiano (story), 6 more credits »
Stars: Marcello MastroianniAnita EkbergAnouk Aimée

A helicopter whirls through the clear skies with an item hanging from it. It passes by ancient Roman ruins and schools where children run to see what it is carrying. As the camera pans in for a close up, we see that it is a statue of Jesus on its way to the Vatican.

The camera pans away from the helicopter to a group of women sunbathing in bikinis. The women hear the whirl of the helicopter and look up to see what is happening. The helicopter, rather than continuing on its way to the Vatican,  stops and lowers itself toward the women. This is where we first meet Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), our main character. Marcello tries to talk to the woman but no one can hear each other over the helicopter blades.

Marcello makes a hand gesture akin to talking on the telephone. The women realize what he is after. He wants a phone number from one of them. The women laugh but reject him. Marcello blows them a kiss anyway. The helicopter takes off again toward the Vatican.

It is in this famous opening sequence that Federico Fellini lays out the themes he will explore throughout the next three hours of “La Dolce Vita” (or “The Sweet Life.”) It is the sharp contrast of religious imagery and brazen sexuality, the contrast of what Émile Durkheim said were the primary religious characteristics: the sacred and the profane.

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“La Dolce Vita” asks the simple question, “what is a good life?” The main arc of the story is told through the eyes of Marcello, a celebrity journalist in Rome. He spends his nights on the famed Via Veneto, the center of Rome’s night life. He parties with celebrities, has sexual trysts with disaffected millionaires and chases after beautiful woman like a swarming bee.

He has a life many would envy. When I first saw “La Dolce Vita” in my early 20s, Marcello’s life was the life I wanted. Just arriving in New York City, I fantasized about many of the same things: chasing beautiful women, spending late nights at bars and nightclubs and living a life different from the one I left behind. 

Now in my 30s, I’ve lived that life in many ways (although it wasn’t quite as glamorous as “La Dolce Vita.”) I’ve spent far too many nights out till 6 a.m. drinking whiskey and chasing women. I’ve had strange trysts and woke in beds in odd neighborhood with a unfamiliar women next to me. For awhile it was fun and sometimes it still is.  But like Marcello, the whiskey doesn’t taste as sweet as it once did, and the women are often temporary balms for loneliness.

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Marcello Mastroianni plays the main character in a matter-of-fact, understated way. When he is around beautiful women, his eyes light up. But he is rarely gregarious or loud, but cool with a sly, affected demeanor. But there is a tired hollowness in his eyes as if he just going through the motions.

He once had ambitions to write a book and become a literary author. But somewhere he has lost himself. What has he lost exactly? And where has he lost it?  Has he lost it in the chase for flesh and fun? Or with his girlfriend, Emma (Yvonne Furneaux), a suicidal woman who desperately wants his love, which he cannot give?

Steiner and Marcello La Dolce Vita

Steiner and Marcello at Steiner’s Party

He has a friend, Steiner (Alain Cuny), who he admires. Stenier is an intellectual with a pretty wife, a mansion and two beautiful children. Steiner spends his time with writers and professors, and has everything Marcello thinks is missing in his life. Maybe this is the good life he has been seeking?

At a party at Steiner’s house at the halfway point of “La Dolce Vita,” a poet friend says about Steiner, “Primitive as a Gothic steeple, so high up you can’t hear the voices below.” Steiner responds while making a gesture with his index finger and his thumb, “If you could see my real stature, you would see I am no higher than this.” Steiner’s line is recorded on a recording system and will be haunting later on in the movie.

Marcello La Dolce Vita

When I first saw the movie I thought it was clear that as Marcello partied and chased after women, he didn’t actually like the lifestyle. Now after re-watching it for the third time, I think quite the opposite. He loves the adventure of it all, the tawdry tales and excitement, which a life of parties and women can bring. In comparison, his homely, nervous girlfriend’s dream of a quiet life with children and big house seems dull. He idealizes Steiner life with his big house and children but does nothing to change his ways. He is addicted to wanting, desiring, chasing in the perpetual rat race, addicted to seeking thrills in the mundanity of everyday existence.

I recognize Marcello’s addiction to thrills because I recognize it in myself. When you’ve lived that way for awhile, everyday life seems dull. Nights at home feel restless and unsatisfying. Something is always missing. A deep sunken hole has found its way into the soul. And the only way to fill that up is with a night out and a cocktail or four.

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The movie is told in 7 loosely connected episodes. It marked Fellini’s first movement away from traditional narratives to more avant garde, image-driven cinema. Each of the episodes begins in the night where everything seems alive and possible. And each ends at dawn when the wear of excitement and alcohol has worn off, and only the truth is left.

The first two episodes involve Rome’s nightlife. In the first he meets Maddalena (Anouk Aimée), a woman he has had an ongoing affair with, randomly at a nightclub. They have sex in a prostitutes bedroom whom they had met earlier. They leave at dawn and Marcello returns home and finds his girlfriend has overdosed on pills. He rushes her to the E.R. where she is saved.

The second episode involves an buxom American actress, Sylvia (Anita Ekberg), who visits Rome and is covered exhaustively by the press. Marcello desires her greatly and chases her up the steps of St. Peters, to a nightclub and finally into Trevi Fountain in the movie’s most famous and iconic scene:

When Marcello brings Sylvia back to her drunk boyfriend, Robert, at dawn, Robert punches him in the face. Even the seduction of one of the most beautiful women in the world is sullied by the light of day.

If partying and women were all “La Dolce Vita” were after, it would be nothing but a shallow, pointless film. But Fellini is after much more, which becomes clear in the next episode.

Madonna 2 La Dolce Vita

The 3rd episode involves Marcello, Emma, his girlfriend, and his photographer friend Paparazzo head to a small town to a cover a story where two young children claim they have seen the Madonna.  That night, the media is everywhere. In the pouring rain, the two children claim they see the Madonna in the trees. In one of the more amazingly filmed spectacles in cinema history, the thousands there to see the Madonna run toward the tree and tear apart where the Madonna is said to be sheltered. It seems that even religion is not immune to unrestrained desire.

The gathering ends at dawn with the crowd mourning a sick child, a pilgrim brought by his mother to be healed, but trampled to death in the melee. The promise of the sacred, a view of the Madonna, only leads to disillusionment as well.

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Having watched “La Dolce Vita” again, I realize how much I missed as a younger man. I thought “La Dolce Vita” was an ironic title, and that Fellini was eschewing Marcello’s lifestyle. But now I see how much more complicated the themes really are. I don’t think Fellini is moralizing about what a good life is. Instead he’s asking us to consider that maybe there is no good life at least not in this world we have created. After the excitement has passed everything will loses its luster. There will be pleasure and love, but there will always be suffering and death too.

I mentioned the character of Steiner above in the review. Here is a man that Marcello idealizes in that his life is everything Marcello’s is not. He has the aesthetics of consumerism and materialism just right. Everything in his life has a perfect sheen like a newly waxed car.

Steiner Death La Dolce Vita

But near the end of the movie in one of the later episodes, the sheen has lost its luster for Steiner. Marcello receives a phone call and heads to Steiner’s home. The police are at Steiner’s house when Marcello arrives. Steiner is dead on the couch, the same couch he sat on in the earlier party, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He has shot his children too. In the background we can his recording playing,  “If you could see my real stature, you would see I am no higher than this.”

It is Steiner’s suicide that is the key to “La Dolce Vita.” In the modern world where people could have everything or anything they want, there is still an emptiness for so many of us too. Marcello has what every single man would seemingly want: beautiful women and nights out until dawn, but still feels hollow. Steiner has what every married man would want: a mansion, a beautiful wife, beautiful children and a respected life as a writer. But in the end it is not enough.

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There is a scene in the middle of La Dolce Vita where Marcello after a fight with Emma spends the after day working on his novel at a restaurant near the sea. At first he gets angry at the young waitress Paola (Valeria Ciangottini) for playing the music too loud.

But then Marcello sees the young girls’s pretty face and softens not because of sexual attraction but because he sees something in this girl, which he has lost.  He asks her if she has a boyfriend, then describes her as an angel in Umbrian paintings. He lets her turn on the music again, and she is happy.

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I’ve so little about Fellini’s direction. If I had to sum it up in one word it would be vitality. Even in his later career when many of the movies he made were awful, he was incapable of filming a boring shot. Although he was hardly a great technical filmmaker like Orson Welles, it is clear that his early life and love of the circus transferred to his filmmaking, as his greatest films often feel like a child sitting down at the circus and watching the excitement for the first time.

Every part of the screen is so alive, even the corners are filled with such vivacity. I think this is by far his best movie and one of my 30 favorite movies ever made. And the score of Nino Rota, who I wrote about in a post earlier this week, matches this verve with a fascinating mix of jazz, bossa nova and traditional classical musical.

I’d remiss not to point, that “La Dolce Vita” 52 years later often feels like a sexist portrayal of women. I suppose that is the point, however. Marcello is so emotionally stunted that he suffers from the Freudian Madonna-Whore complex.  Every woman Marcello is interested in is either someone to be desired but not loved, or someone to be loved but not desired. I imagine Fellini felt a similar way about women in his life. He often put beautiful, unattainable women in his movies, but was married to the same, very normal woman for all of his life. 

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Like so many Fellini films, the beach becomes an important symbol of the loss of innocence and rebirth in “La Dolce Vita.” During the film’s 7th and final episode, Marcello, now older and with tints of grey in his hair, has quit journalism and now works in publicity. After Steiner’s death, it appears he has fully succumbed to a life of the flesh. He attends a party where women strip and an orgy breaks out. At dawn he leaves the home with other members of the party, who look like stunned, shipwrecked passengers, and walks to a nearby beach.

Fellini’s films always inevitably end up at the beach. Growing up in a seaside Italian town, Fellini spent many a summer day in the sun and sand. It an unconscious symbol for him of innocence and childhood, a time that is  lost by the excesses of adulthood.

In “La Dolce Vita,” when Marcello leaves the party, he sees a group of fisherman pulling out something from the water. What appears is a grotesque, horrific monster of some type. The fisherman look at it with odd, perplexed interest. What is this monster? Where did it come from?

Marcello sits down on the beach. Drunk, he looks across the beach and sees the young woman calling to him. At first Fellini shoots her from far. Then the camera cuts to close up. It is Paola, the young waitress, from earlier in the movie, whom Marcello called an angel. Paola is yelling out to him, but she is too far away and he is too drunk and tired. She makes a motion of a typewriter as if to say, “remember me, we met when you were writing your novel at my restaurant?” But Marcello is too far gone at this point and does not recognize her.  She continues to try to communicate with him but he can’t understand and puts his hands up before walking away with his party. 

The camera cuts back to Paola one more time. She watches Marcello and smiles, but there is a glint of sadness in her eyes. Her head turns as she follows him until she is looking straight into the camera, straight at the audience, before cutting to black.

It’s quite the ending and the parallels the opening scene with the Jesus statue. In that scene, the Jesus statue was the sacred and the women were the profane. In the final scene the young waitress is the sacred and the sea monster, a metaphor for Marcello’s life,  is the profane. The young waitress is everything that Marcello has lost: his innocence, his hope, his simplicity, his genuineness. He is “deaf” to the voice of his childhood, which is the voice of the beach. Marcello has turned into quite the opposite, crude, lustful and living for only pleasurable moments.

It is salient that in the mise en scene, Fellini heightens the sound of the waves crashing down on the beach.  It is as if the the sounds of our childhood and innocence are always there and can be remembered but that many of us in our adulthood and responsibilities are too far gone. The waves are still crashing when we want to hear them but our hearing has been muted by the sound of our thoughts and anxieties.

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Our modern day consumer culture has done its job. We are bombarded by thousands of marketing messages a day. We are told over and over that none of us are good enough, that we will always need more and more to live a happy life. In order to buy more and more, we need make as money as we can.

But this creates a restlessness in many of us. We live in the age of the spiritually dead, zombies carrying out our tasks without awareness or meaning.  Our lives feel meaningless, full of dread and ennui. We were told we would be happy if we consumed. But it has just left us feeling empty and alone. But we keep on consuming whether its clothes or the latest electronics or alcohol because we need something, anything to fill up the emptiness.  (How many of us are able to sit by themselves for 5 minutes without doing anything?) And it seems no matter what we do, our childhoods fade farther and farther away. Rilke once said about childhood,

And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attentions to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance.

Fellini seems to similar sentiments in “La Dolce Vita.” There is no “good life” in the modern, capitalist world, not for Marcello, not for Steiner, because the “good life” is just another con sold to us driven by greed and consumption. A authentic “good life” requires something else.

Although he can’t hear her, Paola, the young waitress, is Marcello’s salvation. And like Marcello maybe our salvation is not desire and consumption, but in the innocence and simplicity of our childhood. But how do we get back there? Well that’s another question altogether. And maybe there is no real answer to that. But maybe it is a question we  need to ask ourselves from time to time.